Sunday, November 17, 2019

Witnesses Detail Trump's Impeachable Offense

      The evidence of President Trump's impeachable offense, attempted bribery, has now been laid out in sworn, first-hand testimony by four U.S. diplomats, three of them in public hearings. The most incriminating evidence comes from Trump's own words, as recounted in the summary of his July 25 telephone call with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and an overheard cell phone conversation the next day with his own special envoy, Gordon Sondland.
      The evidence, circumstantial and now direct, confirms that Trump withheld vital military assistance from Ukraine in order to pressure Zelensky to open politically charged investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter. The evidence fully satisfies even the demanding beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard that would be applicable in a criminal trial but not in impeachment. Still, the evidence has yet to move any of the see-no-evil Republican lawmakers even after their repeated calls for first-hand evidence in public hearings have now been met.
      The House impeachment inquiry moved into high gear with testimony from three well respected veteran diplomats [Nov. 13, 14] that Trump obsessed for months over his efforts to get the new Ukrainian president to open investigations into the Bidens. In Trump's warped mindset, Biden was acting to protect his son's role with the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma while carrying out official U.S. policy as vice president in December 2015 to pressure the Kyiv regime to fire the ineffectual and corrupt prosecutor general Viktor Shokin.
      Astonishingly, the same Donald Trump who still wants to put Hillary Clinton behind bars for forwarding classified material on a private email server conducted U.S. foreign policy with Sondland on a cell phone with the U.S. ambassador in a non-secure Kyiv restaurant. Trump spoke loudly enough to be heard by those in the restaurant, including a foreign service officer posted to the U.S. Embassy. David Holmes testified privately that he heard Trump ask Sondland whether Zelensky had agreed to open an investigation into the Bidens. Sondland answered yes, according to Holmes' written statement, as obtained by news organizations before Holmes' closed-door session late Friday [Nov. 15].
      Holmes said he heard Trump respond, "So he's going to do the investigation?" Sondland, a megadonor to Trump's campaign who was rewarded with appointment as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, assured Trump that Zelensky would do "anything you ask him to do."  Holmes later pressed for details from Sondland, who told him that Trump cared not about Ukraine but about "big stuff that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation."
      Republicans have belittled the evidence by noting that the diplomats who testified about Trump's attempted quid pro quo had no direct conversations themselves with the president. Sondland is scheduled to testify later this week [week of Nov. 18] and is certain to be pressed for details of the cell phone conversation and half a dozen other conversations he is now reported to have had with Trump.
      Sondland, it needs to be recalled, said in his initial deposition that he never thought there was any precondition on the U.S. aid to Ukraine. But with a perjury charge possibly in mind, he later recalled in a four-page sworn statement that he told a ranking Ukrainian official that aid was unlikely unless Zelensky delivered the so-called "anticorruption statement" that had been under discussion for weeks.
      Sondland's description of the statement being drafted for Zelensky was flatly contradicted in testimony by his superior, George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. "That was not an anti-corruption statement," Kent testified to the House committee. Meanwhile, the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was weighing in on the drafting process too, according to Kent's testimony. Giuliani told the Ukrainians that the statement would not be acceptable to Trump unless it specifically mentioned the Bidens.
      Republicans and other Trump apologists —  but I repeat myself — have tried out several lines of defense for the president's abuse of power. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, embarrassingly acknowledged what a reporter described in his question as a quid pro quo and then went on to say, "We do that all the time." Not so, according to diplomat William Taylor, who was left as chargé d'affaires in the U.S. embassy in Kyiv after ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was peremptorily dismissed for as-yet unexplained differences with Trump.
      For a while, Republicans also appeared to be suggesting that Giuliani and his shady Ukrainian cronies were acting on their own, with Trump supposedly unaware. That dog simply won't hunt, given the direct evidence now of Trump's involvement.
      Equally unavailing is the line of defense put forward most succinctly in the hearing by the one-time Trump critic New York Republican Elise Stefanik, who emphasized that the deferred military assistance was eventually delivered without any move by Zelensky to open the asked-for investigations. The federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. §201, is instructive on the point. The law broadly makes it illegal to "give, offer, or promise anything of value to a public official . . . to influence any official act," whether or not the offered bribe is paid and whether or not the requested official act is completed.
      With hearings set to resume, Republicans need to be pressed to answer the rhetorical question that the committee's chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, posed from the center chair. "If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?" Schiff asked. From the Republicans, crickets.

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